Advocacy Planning to Open Irrigation Channels in Isabela, Puerto Rico as a Tourism Attraction

The early part of the XXth century witnessed the construction of an extensive web of irrigation channels to distribute water to homes and farmlands in Puerto Rico along more than 35 kms. Still in operation to this day, throughout time different individuals and groups have acknowledged the scenic value of these channels; however, to most they remain unknown.

Conceived by the architectural firm, Jorge Rigau FAIA, Architects, the project was designed to garner support from government officials, institutions, and the general public for the development of Isabela’s irrigation channels as a key ecotourism attraction in Puerto Rico. The “canales” travel across plains, mountains, and forests of varying microclimate, flora, fauna, and views. Maintenance paths that run continuously next to them could today be refashioned as nature trails accessible to the general public, children, senior citizens, and handicapped people alike. This pilot project set out to prove the feasibility of this initiative.

After public access to these facilities had been denied for eighty years, one kilometer of channels was opened up for two days, attracting an audience of over 3,000 registered people, including key decision-makers like the Island’s Interim Governor. Environmental leaders and university professors joined the long lines of visitors from all over the Island.Advocacy is often linked to demonstrations, more than often committed to stop something from happening. In our case, we chose to demonstrate otherwise: How something can, in fact, happen. Letters of support have started to come and decision makers – already engaged – have invited us to sit and dialogue. This is what we planned for.

Participants were instructed about the history and design of the irrigation system, how it works, its cultural impact, and the changes endured by the neighboring rural landscape. Oversize words in environmentally-sensitive foam were “sprinkled” along the route to underline key questions concerning both the system and the proposed project: WHAT? WHERE? HOW? WHY? WHEN?

Professionals, academics, architecture and landscape architecture students – as well as volunteers – guided tours along the canal to make visitors aware of the potential of these trails from which the Island’s natural landscape and its early-20th century industrial heritage can be enjoyed.

The local Architects and Landscape Architects Foundation funded the pilot project, which included a day dedicated to K-12 schools within the canal region. Participants were requested to fill an assessment form, freely formatted to accommodate ideas, concerns, and recommendations. Upon completing the forms, each person received an informative brochure, specially designed to urge everyone to action.

Insertion of texts within the landscape owes much to the reinterpretation of precedents: Robert Smithson’s site-specific works; Jenny Holzer’s linkage of words to movement; Robert Indiana’s supersized treatment of typeface; as well as Dieter Kienast’s joint validation of typographic strokes and counters, using the latter as windows unto the landscape.

In endorsement of sustainable tourism practices, local involvement was integral to the initiative. Community members assisted in the organization, played host of the event, and offered bits of oral history. Local high school students that are enrolled in a tourism-guide training program led the walking tours. A map of neighboring restaurants and establishments was specially designed for the event and distributed among all assistants, urging them to sponsor them.

All photography by Gus Pantell.

PROJECT CREDITS

Executed with the support of the Foundation for the Association of Architecture and Landscape Architecture of Puerto Rico and the collaboration of the county of Isabela, the Energy Authority (AEE) and the School of Landscape Architecture at the Polytechnic University of Puerto Rico.

Concept and Project Design Jorge Rigau FAIA, Architects Project Coordination Miguel Ortíz Graphic Design Alberto Rigau, Estudio Interlínea Archaeological Consultant Gus Pantell Construction and Renovation Consultant Beatriz del Cueto Landscape Consultant Maria Isabel Rodríguez